Making IT Work for Learning
Technology and the Test
By Trevor Shaw
Director of Academic Technology
Dwight Englewood School
Bergen County, NJ
Recently, I was meeting with a group of teachers and administrators examining
the usefulness of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) in the classroom. We talked
about how a student PDA program might work, and how students might be able
to use the devices to collect data, take notes, and have quick and easy access
totremendous amounts of reference material in each of their subjects. Everyone
seemed to agree in principle that these were useful benefits that would only
enhance the educational experience for students and allow teachers to assign
more engaging types of activities in their classes.
Then the topic of testing came up.
"Obviously, we'll have to collect these during exams," one teacher commented.
"Why would you do that after spending the entire semester getting the students
to depend on them?" replied another.
To Look Up, or Not to Look Up
This then led to a pretty even split within the group about assessment in
general, the purpose of exams, and to what extent electronic tools support
that purpose. Some argued that electronic tools such as graphing calculators
allow teachers to ask more authentic and probing questions by helping students
to visualize the behavior of certain types of data without being bogged down
in the minutia of computation. Others responded that a student's ability to
internalize an understanding of that minutia is critical to his or her ability
to solve larger, more complex problems. Others also emphasized that in some
subjects such as a foreign language, basic memorization of vocabulary is a
central part of what they are assessing in the first place. To give them a
tool such as a PDA or laptop so they could quickly look up words in an electronic
dictionary would make critical parts of the exam pointless.
For years, critics of school technology spending have pointed to studies
that show no significant impact on student performance from technology in the
classroom. Technology supporters counter by stating that to use computers to
deliver the same type of instruction and to assess learning in the traditional
sense of quantitatively measuring the amount of information the student knows
or the speed with which she can recall it is to miss the point entirely.
It seems clear to me that in most subjects, a fundamental literacy of basic
information is required to be successful. Algebra students who haven't memorized
the multiplication tables will have difficulty factoring quadratic equations.
Spanish students with limited vocabularies will have difficulty carrying on
conversations beyond the most basic levels of discourse. I think we who support
more widespread use of instructional technology would be foolish to discount
the importance of these basic skills and not to recognize the potential danger
of allowing technology to function as a crutch, enabling students to circumvent
Others, however, would be equally foolish to confuse basic, foundational
skills that need to be internalized in order to achieve basic mastery of a
subject with facts related to a subject that are memorized and quickly forgotten
shortly after the course is over. Too often, we mistake information for knowledge
and speed for skill. When a significant portion of an assessment tool is devoted
to verifying that a certain amount of information has been committed to memory,
it is easy to see why an instructor would resist the use of technology tools
during an exam.
Swimming Against the Current
Fear of cheating is the most common reason teachers resist the use of electronic
devices in an exam. To reject or limit the use of electronic devices in most
exams is, however, tantamount to swimming against a strengthening current.
As electronic devices become smaller, more easily concealed, and more universally
connected to each other and to the Internet, teachers who think they are doing
anything at all to prevent cheating by prohibiting them will find that they
are only fooling themselves. With communication technologies such as wrist
watches that connect to the Internet, Blue-Tooth-enabled cell phones, and PDAs
that support text messaging and chat, I think we will soon find ourselves in
an environment in which it is virtually impossible for teachers to ensure the
integrity of the exam in traditional ways.
Many teachers try to balance the benefits of technology use with the need
to ensure academic honesty by allowing students to use things like graphing
calculators, but only after a proctor has checked their memory to ensure that
the student hasn't stored formulas or other pieces of information that might
help them during the test. While this might be a noble attempt at infusing
technology into the learning and testing process, I believe that it fails to
recognize the main purpose of the technology as a tool to extend student thinking.
Storing a formula in a calculator before a test is evidence that while the
student may not have committed the formula to memory, she has given thought
to why she might need to refer to it. When she successfully applies the formula
during the test to analyze or interpret data, she will have shown that she
understands its purpose and "knows" it better than a student who has done nothing
more than commit it to memory.
Why, then, do we insist on including such information on major assessments?
Why do English exams include vocabulary and factual questions about texts?
Why aren't physics students allowed to bring formulas required for solving
problems into the exam? Why are history students expected to answer questions
without the benefit of their textbooks?
The answer lies in the fact that we are desperate for some quantitative way
of assessing student performance. Authentic, meaningful projects are often
messy, and their assessments are almost invariably qualitative. Despite the
fact that all true assessments are qualitative, we often aren't comfortable
hanging our hat on an assessment of a student unless we have some factual,
numeric data to point to and say, "You got a C because you could only recall
75 percent of the vocabulary that I assigned." We lack confidence in our ability
to be fair and to articulate the qualities that demonstrate excellence.
Because of this, we become married to anything that can give us an objective
view of the student's learning. We conclude that the students who can memorize
the best are either the smartest, or the hardest workers, and either way deserve
the best grades. We overlook the fact that while often helping us identify
the best students, these assessment tools tell us very little about student
understanding of the subject.
In such a situation, student electronic devices can only cause problems.
Tools that help adults find, evaluate, and apply information as they work become
instruments for academic dishonesty in the hands of students. They subvert
this process of evaluation that we find so comfortable by taking away factual
recall as a basis for evaluation.
response to this, we will have to design assessment tools that are more reflective
of the way knowledge and information are used in the adult world. These tools
will support access to information rather than restricting it. They will encourage
collaboration rather than punishing it, and they will reward the application
of information and not simply the regurgitation of it.
Trevor Shaw has worked as technology coordinator, consultant,
speaker, and classroom teacher since 1993. His work has focused on staff development,
curriculum design, and how new technologies impact teaching methods. He is currently
the director of academic technology at the Dwight Englewood School in Bergen
County, New Jersey. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.